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Playoff Preview: Potential First Round Matchups

As the playoffs approach, here’s a look at the potential first round match-ups for the Preds.

Nashville Predators v San Jose Sharks - Game Seven Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Predators took a huge step towards locking up a playoff spot on Monday. First, they beat the Coyotes 3-1. This gave the Preds 83 points and put them in 3rd place in the Central ahead of the Blues. Then later, the Kings lost to the Oilers 2-0, and the Preds finished the night eight points ahead of the Kings in the wild card.

According to Sportsclubstats.com, the Predators now have a 97.3% chance of making the playoffs. While it is far from over, most of the fringe playoff teams like the Kings, the Jets, and the Stars, are plummeting in the standings. Anything can happen, but things are looking good.

So now we nervously await the final 10 games to see 1) if/when the Preds clinch a playoff spot and 2) who they will face in the first round if/when they do so.

On that note, there are really only three potential first round match-ups. Let’s take a look.

Chicago Blackhawks

Odds of facing them in the 1st round: 43.7%

Season Record: 1-4-0

The Matchup

Despite winning 3-2 on opening night, the Predators have been dominated by the Blackhawks this year. The Hawks have scored at least five goals in three of the five games against the Preds, despite the Preds out-shooting the Hawks in almost every game. All the losses were hard to take, but the most recent one—where Brian Campbell scored with a little over a minute in regulation—was especially tough.

These Blackhawks are the same Blackhawks you’ve seen for the last 5-6 years except probably a bit better. Their main four weapons, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Corey Crawford, are playing at or above the peak of their careers. Notable Pred killer Marian Hossa is having a solid year at 38 years old. Last year’s Calder Trophy winner Artemi Panarin is 2nd on the team in points with 66.

These Hawks are deep as well. A host of forwards like Marcus Kruger, Nick Schmaltz, Ryan Hartman and Richard Panik have contributed consistently all year. Artem Anisimov is battling an injury, but should be back for the playoffs. Tanner Kero has been a decent 4th line center, next to Jordin Tootoo.

Defensively, Nicklas Hjalmarsson and Trevor Van Riemsdyk join Keith for a solid blue-line, along with Campbell and recently acquired Johnny Oduya.

There really are no weaknesses to exploit here. I hate to say it, but the Hawks are primed for a Cup run.

The Worry

There are so many.

First there’s the complete and utter dominance in the series by the Hawks since the beginning of their recent dynasty. In addition to winning three Stanley Cups, the Hawks have gone 25-15-0-2 in 42 games against the Predators in both the regular season and playoffs since 2010.

Then there are the horrible playoff memories. Countless missed opportunities and gut-wrenching endings to playoff games have haunted Predator fans for years now. Martin Erat’s inexplicable pass in Game 5 of the 2010 series. The missed OT chances in Games 1 and 4 of the 2015 series. Scott Darling doing Scott Darling things. The list goes on.

And finally, there’s the fans. The insufferable, inebriated fans. No one likes them, no one wants them in our building. But a playoff game would bring them in by the thousands.

The Excitement

Name another team in the NHL you would want the Predators to beat in the playoffs more than the Blackhawks. I’ll wait.

Just the thought of finally cresting that wave is intoxicating.

Minnesota Wild

Odds of facing them in the 1st round: 37.0%

Season Record: 1-2-1, with one game to go

The Matchup

The Wild haven’t played well as of late—they’ve lost 8 of their last 10 games—but they are still one of the better teams in the Western Conference. They play a defense-first game, but with some excellent offensive weapons.

First on defense. Ryan Suter paired with Jared Spurgeon are an excellent top pair. Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin (and sometimes Marco Scandella) round out the top four. At one point, this blue-line was the best in the league, and maybe they still are. They are very tough to move off the puck.

Offensively, the top line of Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker and Mikko Koivu has been solid all year long, combining offensive speed with defensive steadfastness. If an entire line could win the Selke, it would be this line.

Eric Staal has had an incredible bounce back year from his disappointment in New York. His 54 points is 2nd most on the Wild. But beyond Staal and the top line, the offense is sparse. Zach Parise and Nino Niederreiter have 16 and 18 goals respectively, but I’m not sure most people are worried that Chris Stewart or Jason Pominville are going to cause too much worry in the playoffs. Right?

Devan Dubnyk is definitely a Vezina finalist, though his chances of winning it have diminished recently. He’s still got a 92.7 save percentage, but over his last 10 games, Dubnyk is 2-7-0 with an 89.9 save percentage. Not exactly closing the season out on a high note.

The Worry

The Wild have the capability of putting a choke hold on most attacks. They are built to slow teams like the Predators down. Dubnyk has great career numbers against the Predators: he’s 10-6-2 with a 92.9 save percentage in 19 games. With the defense he has in front of him, Dubnyk could easily put up similar numbers.

So just thinking about watching the first game of this series—which would likely be in Minnesota—with the Preds frustrated every shift, shooting lazy wrist shots into Dubynk’s chest plate, and then trudging slowly to an inevitable 2-0 shutout loss? Yeah, that’s already making me angry.

In addition to all that, I think most fans wouldn’t be able to stomach watching Ryan Suter win in the playoffs, though I wouldn’t really have a problem with it.

The Excitement

Like I said, the Wild have been trending downwards. It is possible the Preds could face a lifeless or desperate Wild team that just let the Central Division title slip from their grasp. If the Preds get hot at the right time, it could be a perfect storm.

And also there’s the Bruce Boudreau effect. The Preds certainly found a way to beat a Boudreau coached team last year, so maybe they could have some magic this year as well.

San Jose Sharks

Odds of facing them in the 1st round: 12.3%

Season Record: 1-1, with one game to go

The Matchup

This is another team that is trending downward, but still very, very good.

The reigning Western Conference champs still have Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Brent Burns, all of which are dangerous offensively. That group makes up the bulk of the scoring on this Sharks team. Logan Couture is third on the team with 52 points and can do some damage on the power play as well—he leads the Sharks with 11 power play goals. Patrick Marleau is still around, he’s got 23 goals on the season.

Beyond that? Yeah, there’s not a whole lot. This Sharks team has not had as much secondary scoring as last year’s Sharks team. Joel Ward has taken a huge step back. Tomas Hertl has been injured. Melker Karlsson and Joonas Donskoi are decent options, but neither have been consistent. The fourth line has been unimpressive.

The tough thing about the Sharks is that they are still a great defensive team. Burns might run the show on offense, but guys like Paul Martin, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Justin Braun help Burns run the 2nd best defense in the league. Martin Jones has had another fine year and backup sensation Aaron Dell can provide more than enough support in case Jones has an off night.

The Worry

I’m sure we all remember May 12th, 2016, right?

The way last season ended was painful. After winning two of the most exciting Predators playoff games in franchise history, the Preds plopped out a 5-0 stinker in Game 7. It sucked. So bad.

So, that’s the worry. That the Predators build up our hopes only to dash them in an utter display of incompetence.

The Excitement

REVENGE. SWEET REVENGE.

While I would rather beat the Blackhawks in a playoff series than probably anyone in the league, a revenge series win against the Sharks wouldn’t be half bad. Especially considering that the Sharks have won more playoff series against the Preds than any other team.

So, who do you want? Sharks? Blackhawks? Wild?